Clown, jester, poet…Tenali Rama, minister in the court of the ruler of Vijaynagar, Krishnadeva Rai (reign: 1509-30), was a multi-faceted personality. Stories about Tenali Rama and his practical jokes on everyone around him, including distinguished fellow poets and the emperor himself, abound in south India.
His fame spread beyond Vijaynagar (present-day Andhra Pradesh), to areas that are in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka today. Tenali Rama was also a great scholar of several languages that included Marathi, Tamil and Kannada.
Once upon a time, Krishnadeva Rai, who ruled over the Vijayanagar kingdom, dreamt of a beautiful palace. It was made of glittering stones and floated in the air. The palace had everything that one could ever wish for. And it could be lit up with a thousand lights or made to disappear into the darkness by merely wishing so.
The king woke up with a start. But he could not forget the dream palace. So, one day, he summoned all his courtiers and told them about it. The courtiers made all the right noises and sang praises of the king and his beautiful dream.
Then the king made a public announcement: “If someone can make such a palace for me, I will give him a hundred thousand gold coins!”
That stopped the courtiers mid-sentence. Their mouths fell open. “Is the king mad? Whoever heard of a palace floating in air,” they thought.
But no one had the courage to say so. Many of king’s well-wishers told him that such a palace can only exist in one’s mind. But he would not listen, of course. He insisted that it could be built. He also threatened his courtiers with dire consequences if they did not produce someone who could make the dream come true.
The courtiers were worried. And the senior counsel of the state requested Tenali Rama to do something.
A few days later, a very old man tottered into the king’s court. He was crying for justice.
Krishnadeva Rai asked: “Old man, what’s the problem? Tell me without fear and I shall see that justice is done.”
“I’ve been looted, Your Majesty,” wailed the old man. “All my savings are gone. I have nothing left.”
“Who looted you?”, thundered the king. “You name him and I’ll have him hanged immediately!”
“Your Majesty! If you don’t take it as a personal affront, I will tell you. But you must assure that you won’t punish me,” mumbled the old man.
“Yes, yes, I promise,” replied the king impatiently.
“It’s you sire,” said the old man.
“How dare you…”, began the king, but then he remembered his promise and sat back.
“Your Majesty! Last night, I’d dreamt that you’d come with your entourage of ministers and commanders and looted my entire life’s savings — five thousand gold coins!”, said the old man.
“You are a fool!”, roared the king. “How can you pretend that your dream is reality? Dreams are not true!”
“But they are, Your Majesty! If your dream of a palace hanging in air can come true, why can’t my dream come true?”
And before the king could fully comprehend what the old man was driving at, the man tore off his beard and hair and stood before the king. It was none other than Tenali Rama!
Bowing low before the amazed king, Tenali Rama said: “Your Majesty ! This was the only way of convincing you about the absurdity of your wish.”
“You’re right,” agreed the king and burst into laughter “Tenali! you are really very shrewd!”, he added.